A mediocre first act cripples an otherwise excellent biopic.
Bohemian Rhapsody, the Freddie Mercury/Queen biopic from director Bryan Singer, is a polished, impeccably produced, pretty picture that portrays one of the world’s most interesting bands as anything but. Luckily, the movie soars in the second half, but unfortunately, it’s too little, too late.
For the first hour of Rhapsody, performances are shallow, character moments are few and far between, jokes continuously fail to land, and clichés are rampant. At times, the dialog is so forced, it’s hard to believe writer Anthony McCarten has an Oscar under his belt (for The Theory of Everything, no less). For example: “We’re a band for the outcasts,” “You’re a legend, Freddie,” “Every band wants more,” and “But every band’s not Queen” are all pieces of dialogue in the film.
Even worse is the lack of real character moments for some of rock’s defining characters. Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) hardly feel present, despite being in nearly every scene. Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury is a great impression, but we never truly empathize with him as a character. Most upsetting is the lack of development for Mercury’s fiancée Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and eventual boyfriend Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). When Mercury writes “Love of My Life” for Austin, the scenes involving the song are emotionally empty; when he starts to feel for Prenter and doubt his heterosexuality, Prenter seems like a glorified extra.
This first act of Rhapsody covers the formation of the band and the entirety of the recording of classic album A Night At the Opera – notable for the song “Bohemian Rhapsody”, among others. The recording of the album feels like a trailer, despite containing some scenes clearly intended to be powerful, character-defining moments, like Taylor defending the song “I’m in Love With My Car”.
The final scene involving the album sees the band quit a deal with EMI after trying to bully executive Ray Foster (Mike Myers) into releasing “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a single. This scene is clearly supposed to paint Foster as a fool who doesn’t know what he’s about to lose, but instead ends up turning every member of Queen, their manager, and lawyer into entirely unlikeable characters.
Halfway through Rhapsody, we’re introduced to Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), who breathes new life into the film.
Although he’s in the movie less than fifteen minutes, McCusker deserves credit for whipping Rhapsody into shape. The two meet at one of Mercury’s famously raucous parties, where Hutton is working as a waiter. At this point in the film, Mercury’s relationship with Austin has recently ended, and his work ethic is starting to wear on the rest of the band – themselves busy with wives and children. Hutton and Mercury become fast friends before the final heartwarming line “I like you, Freddie. Come find me when you like yourself.”
Anyone who followed the troubled development of Rhapsody may remember that the original pitch for the film was a character study of Mercury’s most turbulent years, and that’s what the movie becomes in its second act. Most importantly, Rhapsody suddenly feels fleshed-out at this point. A scene of Taylor and May writing “We Will Rock You” finally makes May feel like a driving force in the band he started. In his few small character moments, Taylor believably goes from rockstar playboy to family-man-in-a-band. John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) even gets one of the best moments in the film, intervening in a heated argument between Mercury and May by introducing them to the bassline of “Another One Bites the Dust.”
The scenes with Boynton’s character after her breakup with Mercury are beautifully acted, but ultimately robbed of their power by the fact that the relationship never felt real in the first half. Queen manager John Reid (Aiden Gillen) has only one good scene, which, disappointingly, is his firing. At least Prenter isn’t positioned as the movie’s antagonist until the second act, during which he has ample time to grow into an evil, manipulative snake.
There’s a great movie in Rhapsody, and it’s about an hour long.
For my thoughts on why it shouldn't have won a Golden Globe, click here.